On the Death of John Chau and the Madness of Missionaries

A young man arrived on a remote tribal island hoping to win converts, soon he would be killed

North Sentinel Island, Gautam Singh/AP/Shutterstock

The first time I remember declaring that I was called to be a missionary occurred when I was in third grade. Instead of saying I was too young to make such a declaration, my teacher, Mrs. Cooper, praised me. Had I ultimately stayed the course, I might have ended up like John Allen Chau, who was killed by members of the tribal community on North Sentinel Island on or around November 16.

Chau was, after all, steeped in the same radical Christian ideology I grew up with, an ideology whose adherents reject pluralism and who believe that the gospel must be preached to “every nation, tribe, and tongue”—a reference to Revelation 7:9—before Jesus will supposedly return in an event known as the rapture. To someone driven by this kind of Christian extremism, a little thing like the very real possibility that an entire people could face annihilation from the microbes he brought with him—since the North Sentinelese are so isolated that they lack immunity to common diseases—cannot stand in the way of the plans of a deity who gave ancient Israel a mandate to exterminate the Canaanite peoples. This is ends-justify-the-means Christianity.

When I was a kid attending Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, Indiana, we were taught to admire “heroic” missionaries, particularly those who became “martyrs” by dying on the mission field. We learned about Operation Auca, a 1956 missionary project in which Nate Saint and Jim Elliot were killed in an attempt to contact and convert what evangelicals call an “unreached people” in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Elliot’s wife Elisabeth continued to work among these people, then referred to as “the Auca” but more properly called the Huaorani, with many eventually converting to Christianity.

In white evangelical subculture, this story of reckless colonialism is widely celebrated and seen as worthy of emulation. Indeed, I recall one of my school friends in particular, one who has gone on to spend a great deal of time on the mission field (sometimes in situations I’m pretty sure are less than 100 percent legal), rhapsodizing about the “martyrdom” aspect. To those of us who grew up as conservative evangelicals, the cultural script that John Chau was enacting when he illegally landed on North Sentinel Island was instantly recognizable.
But how do we know this kind of colonialist missionary work is what Chau was up to? The evidence that Chau, despite not being white, was fully committed to this white theological radicalism is far more than circumstantial. Chau graduated from Oral Roberts University, a fundamentalist school associated with prosperity gospel teachings and a charismatic approach to “prophecy.” During his college days, he led youth mission trips. When the reports of his death came out, Chau was hailed as a “courageous martyr for Jesus” by Mat Staver, the lawyer associated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University who famously defended Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky, when the county clerk illegally refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Staver, who founded Liberty Counsel, also founded the less well-known organization Covenant Journey, which arranges Holy Land tours for evangelical college students, one of which John Chau attended. Such tours are popular with evangelicals and typically associated with end times obsession—one of my own uncles brought back a shofar from a similar trip some years back. Finally, we know that Chau was affiliated with All Nations, an interdenominational evangelical missionary organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, and whose leadership team, per its own website, is almost entirely white. All Nations’ statement of faith professes that the organization “upholds the Lausanne Covenant,” part of which reads, “We believe that Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly, in power and glory, to consummate his salvation and his judgment. This promise of his coming is a further spur to our evangelism, for we remember his words that the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” In his own diary, Chau reportedly wrote, “Lord, is this island Satan's last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

That John Chau was a product of the radical apocalyptic evangelical milieu I grew up in, and driven by its approach to missions, thus seems undeniable. Why, then, is the commentary from the most prominent evangelical outlets relatively sparse? White evangelicals are well aware that they are currently under a microscope due to their overwhelming Trump support, and Chau’s recklessness may be something of an embarrassment to evangelicals deeply invested in a respectable image. In a podcast, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, praised Chau’s zeal and desire to spread the gospel to “unreached peoples.” He criticized Chau’s “methodology” [sic.] of going alone, however, noting that Nate Saint and Jim Elliot were part of a team who followed up on the efforts that led to their deaths. He does not seem concerned about the likely genocide of the North Sentinelese people that would result from a more concerted team effort.
His recklessness toward the North Sentinelese people and with regard to his own life is clearly the enacting of an evangelical cultural script, the result of evangelical ideology that is extremist any way you slice it.
Meanwhile, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center Institute, Ed Stetzer, posted this publicly to Facebook: "Concerning John Chau's engagement of Sentinel Island. I've written a very long article, but have learned enough today that I have decided that I need to wait until the full story emerges. I encourage you to do the same. When things sound this strange, it often means we need more info that will make things more clear. Sadly, that takes time."

Despite Stetzer’s warning, people are debating the merits of Chau’s activity in the replies. One concerned Christian wrote, “This is only confusing in our western 21st century, post modern [sic.], confused, anti-gospel, anti-christian, society. There was a time when losing one’s life on the pursuit of reaching the unreached wasn't such a shocking concern,” to which another replied, “It’s not just that he died. It’s that he was foolish!” Chau is thus now a somewhat controversial figure among the American evangelicals he came from.

Even so, his recklessness toward the North Sentinelese people and with regard to his own life is clearly the enacting of an evangelical cultural script, the result of evangelical ideology that is extremist any way you slice it. While some evangelicals will mourn Chau as a martyr and others will resist that narrative if only because they see him as “foolish” in his missionary “methodology,” it is clear that #ChristianAltFacts have consequences that are dangerous for the rest of us.

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